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I was rereading Winston Churchill's "Their Finest Hour" speech, and came across this passage in reference to the threat from bombing attacks:

I do not at all underrate the severity of the ordeal which lies before us; but I believe our countrymen will show themselves capable of standing up to it, like the brave men of Barcelona, and will be able to stand up to it, and carry on in spite of it, at least as well as any other people in the world.

(emphasis mine).

Spain of course was a neutral country at the time. So what incident involving Barcelona is he referring to here?

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There was a civil war in Spain shortly before World War II that was a "testing ground" for the main war. That is, the Axis powers and the Soviet Union supported the Nationalist and Republican sides respectively, and got to test some tactics.

The main German contribution was the Condor Legion that was (secretly) trained in Germany and operated in Spain, because Germany had been forbidden to have an air force by the Versailles Treaty. This unit bombed Republican forces at Guernica, for instance, and later joined Italian planes in bombing Barcelona, the most pro-Republican part of Spain, using the terror tactics that the Germans had developed at Guernica.

Although they lost, the Republicans put up a brave fight with inferior weaponry and Churchill held them up as an "example," compared to say, Britain's submissive and recent French ally that had surrendered even with (originally) equal numbers and weapons.

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    Good points. This answer should be taken together with Mark Wallace's to get the complete picture of the scenario. – Dan Sep 8 '16 at 20:28
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It was precisely the strategic bombing campaign that Mussolini's forces based in Majorca unleashed against Catalan cities which attracted a great deal of attention by British observers. A number of both military officers and politicians and civil servants tried to learn as much as possible about the possible countermeasures and the bombing's impact on civilian morale. This policy of observation, in search for "lessons learned", would later be reinforced when some of the key participants in the defence of Barcelona moved to the United Kingdom. WinstonChurchill.org

Wikipedia's article on the Bombing of Barcelona (hat tip to @Brasidas) highlights the new technology, the anxiety of the victims and the horror of other nations. The audience for Churchill's remarks would have been aware of these reactions.

  • 1
    Good find. This answer combined with Tom Au's paints a complete picture of the scenario and the significance of invoking it. – Dan Sep 8 '16 at 20:27

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